By William Berger
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann takes on Wagner’s questing hero Parsifal for the first time at the Met, in a new production of the opera director François Girard calls “a sacred piece in the history of music.”
Any performance of Parsifal is an event, and was never meant to be anything less. Wagner didn’t intend the opera to be a repertory piece—he called it a Bühnenweihfestspiel, or “stage consecrating festival play,” and audiences at the 1882 Bayreuth premiere certainly felt they had participated in something momentous and transforming. One attendee even remarked that he was concerned for Wagner’s life, since after Parsifal there couldn’t possibly be anything left to accomplish. (In fact, the composer died a few months later.) It is precisely this sense of urgency—of transformation and renewal for an audience in the here and now—that director François Girard is aiming for in his new Met production, which opens on February 15 in this bicentennial year of Wagner’s birth. “It was really a question of how to engage a modern audience,” Girard says of his approach, “and to let this piece say things that matter, without kidnapping it and throwing it into a new context, which I think is being done to Wagner too often.”
Renewal, of course, is the central theme of Parsifal, which tells the story of a young man who knows little about who he is. A “pure fool,” as a prophecy has described him, he encounters an ailing brotherhood of knights and an enigmatic woman living out an ancient curse. His path through suffering to enlightenment eventually leads him to the fulfillment of his destiny: he will become king of the knights of the Holy Grail, reinvigorating this mystical order, which has fallen into a sort of encrusted impotence.
From the outset, Girard’s plan was to pull listeners into the story as immediately as possible and to remove any sense of distance from what might otherwise seem like a foreign, medieval tale. In fact, the audience will be a part of the production’s visuals right from the beginning of the prelude. “We start with a mirror, a reflecting glass curtain,” the director explains. “So the very first thing the audience sees is themselves. And then we pull the characters from behind it.”
The Met has assembled a truly remarkable cast for the new production, including some of today’s most acclaimed Wagnerians. In the title role, tenor Jonas Kaufmann takes on his second Wagner assignment with the company, following his success as Siegmund in Die Walküre two seasons ago. “Jonas is the dream for Parsifal,” Girard declares. “He can sing the music better than anyone, but he also has acting skills that we don’t always see in singers. He’s also a beautiful man with a pure face that this young fool calls for.” (Kaufmann has previously sung the role in Europe.) Katarina Dalayman, whose Met credits include both Brangäne and Isolde in Tristan und Isolde and Brünnhilde in the Ring, is Kundry, and the world’s leading Wagnerian bass, René Pape, sings Gurnemanz. They are joined by Peter Mattei as the suffering Amfortas and Evgeny Nikitin as the evil sorcerer Klingsor.
As a tale of petrification and renewal, Parsifal ironically has suffered greatly from enshrinement itself. The acoustics and ambience of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, built by Wagner for ideal performances of his own works, were on his mind when he wrote the score, and he wanted Parsifal to be performed exclusively there. To experience the work, one had to make a sort of pilgrimage to Bayreuth. Likewise, the original production was considered sacrosanct for decades. German law backed up Bayreuth’s exclusive rights to Parsifal, and other theaters maintained the embargo out of respect for the Wagner family. But one opera house didn’t: the Met, which gave the first staged performance of the work outside Bayreuth on Christmas Eve, 1903. It was a huge scandal, and all singers who appeared in the production were effectively banned from Bayreuth. But in spite of the hubbub—or perhaps, in part, because of it—the Met production was a great success.
Bayreuth itself unveiled its first new production in 1934, but it retained the feel of the original. The pivotal moment of renewal for Parsifal came in 1951, when the festival reopened after the devastation of World War II, in an attempt to free itself from its troubling association with the Third Reich. Wagner’s grandson Wieland presented a shocking production, set on an almost bare stage, with sophisticated lighting and stylized costumes. The English critic Ernest Newman described the performance as “not only the best Parsifal I have ever seen and heard but one of the three or four most moving spiritual experiences of my life.”
Newman’s claim is plausible: Parsifal is meant to transform. It introduces an element of ritual into the performance that creates analogies to the mass— elements of which are depicted onstage (to the continuing dismay of many) in the first and last act. Wagner himself thought that the associations with Christian imagery could be taken too far in Parsifal. “Imagine making Christ a tenor! Pffft!” he commented. Yet he applied the imagery extravagantly: wine, bread, and much else. It is hardly surprising that critics would accuse Wagner of appropriating Christianity for what remains first Katarina Dalayman is Kundry, with Peter Mattei and René Pape singing Amfortas and Gurnemanz. and foremost one of the supreme masterpieces of music theater.
Director Girard points out that people have strayed too far from Wagner’s warning about a primarily Christian reading of the work. “I think Parsifal has been overly depicted as a Christian drama,” he says. “There are strong references—the mass, the wounds of Christ, the Grail, the holy spear. But it also has a very distinct Buddhist and, I would even say, nihilist foundation. We’re trying very hard to rebalance that in our approach.” Wagner, who had become interested in Buddhism in the 1850s after reading the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, at one point planned a Buddhist-themed opera but eventually abandoned the project. Aspects of it survive in Parsifal in the character of the seemingly ageless Kundry.
Few works of theater offer a wider range of ideas than Wagner’s final work. Girard’s goal—and, it seems, the composer’s as well—is to tell a universal story. The look of his new production, which features sets by Michael Levine and costumes by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck, is contemporary, but in an abstract rather than provocative way, intended to engage rather than alienate the audience. “The set is really minimal,” the director explains, “with a sense of asceticism. Parsifal is not just an opera—it’s a mission. It’s a sacred piece in the history of music, and I don’t think it’s a piece with which to play tricks. I hope that the contemporary costumes will add to the impression that this is not the story of a distant monastery. It’s us. It’s our suffering, our temptation, our weakness, the violent impulses in us.”
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